Athlone businesspeople fear the council may ‘kill the goose that lays the golden egg’ which funds the town if there is no commercial rate reduction at Wednesday’s budget meeting.
With businesses contributing almost half of the town council’s funding, new president of Athlone Chamber of Commerce, John McGrath, said the council must support local enterprise. A failure to drop rates will devastate Athlone’s businesses, he said.
As businesses re-examine costs, changing phone, internet, electricity, and other service providers to make small but important savings, he said it was patronising and offensive to describe a small rate cut as “token”.
He was referring to the words used by Fine Gael, Labour, and Independent county councillors who voted down a Fianna Fáil proposed rate reduction at the county budget meeting in December, saying it would benefit larger, rather than small businesses.
Mr McGrath said the symbolism of a rate cut by the county council would have sent out a strong message to businesses that the council is on their side, a point made by Cllr Paddy Hill, who proposed the cut.
In any case, the council had no difficulty in passing a 1 per cent increase to commercial rates in 2008, said Mr McGrath.
“The fact of the matter is that the Athlone Town Council Budget has been cut over the last two years; however the beneficiary of these cuts has been Westmeath County Council. The county charge has increased from €1.3m in 2010 to €1.68m in 2012 without any information being made readily available to those looking at the figures. This represents a 30 per cent increase in the county charge which in turn translates into a 4 per cent burden on the commercial ratepayer,” he added.
Mayor of Athlone Alan Shaw doesn’t believe rates alone are the issue, but says the burden will shift in the future.
“Over time the reliance on commercial rates will reduce,” he said, as the property tax, if introduced and taxes on second homes should help as national funding declines.
He said the money is reinvested in the town, and referred to the gallery, Athlone castle and “an ambitious waterfront plan”, the projects John McGrath said should be put on hold for a year.
These projects will enhance Athlone, attract more tourists, bring a greater spend to local businesses, and “ultimately the ratepayer will see the benefit of it,” said Cllr Shaw.
He said he understands the trading environment is tough, but urged businesses to reduce other overheads and their cost base.
“If you reduce rates by 2-3 per cent, the savings are small, but the big winners are the big retailers and larger corporations. I would prefer to see us invest into our small retail shops by investing in tourism.”